Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, b. Hamburg, Feb. 3, 1809, was one of the major German romantic composers. He was the son of a banker and grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin. Young Felix (along with his sister Fanny, a talented pianist and composer) received his first piano lessons from his mother; he subsequently studied with Ludwig Berger and Carl Friedrich Zelter.
Mendelssohn showed a surprising gift for composition at an early age. He wrote his famous overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was 17; by then he had also written 12 symphonies for string orchestra. He later composed additional numbers for the play in 1834. Mendelssohn traveled extensively, especially to England, and in 1835 he became conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra in Leipzig, directing first performances of symphonies by Franz Schubert and by his friend Robert Schumann. In 1837 he married Cecile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French Huguenot clergyman (Mendelssohn, though of Jewish descent, was baptized a Protestant in 1824).
In 1842-43, Mendelssohn organized the Leipzig Conservatory and made it known worldwide as a model music school. Meanwhile he maintained an intensive schedule of touring as pianist and conductor, especially in England, where he was the favorite composer of Queen Victoria and the music-loving Prince Albert. Shocked by the death of his sister Fanny on May 14, 1847, and exhausted from overwork, Mendelssohn died in Leipzig on Nov. 4, 1847.
Mendelssohn excelled in all musical genres except opera. His most important symphonies are the Reformation (composed 1829-30, revised 1832), the sparkling Italian (1832-33), and the elegiac Scotch (sketched 1829-32, finished 1842). His programmatic overtures, of which the Hebrides or Fingal's Cave (1830, revised 1832) is best known, point the way to the symphonic poem, and his violin concerto (1844) is one of the most popular works for the instrument. His chamber music is best represented by an octet for strings (written at age 16), 6 numbered string quartets, 2 piano trios, and 2 sonatas for cello and piano.
His piano music has been generally neglected. The Songs Without Words were once popular as teaching pieces, but his Variations serieuses (1841) ranks as one of the finest sets of variations between Beethoven and Brahms. Also deserving mention are his six organ sonatas, the first major organ works since those of Johann Sebastian Bach. Mendelssohn's choral music shows the strong influence of Bach's works, especially of the St. Matthew Passion, which Mendelssohn conducted in 1829, the first performance of the work since Bach's time a century earlier. Chief among his choral works are the two oratorios, St. Paul (1832-36), which reflects Bach's treatment of Lutheran chorales, and Elijah (1845-46, revised 1847), a freer work distinguished by its effective choruses.
Impeccable craftsmanship and a thorough knowledge and understanding of the media for which he wrote are distinguishing traits of Mendelssohn's music. His occasional lapses into sentimentality are offset by his elfin scherzos, elegiac moods, and musical seascapes. His music is thought to reflect the middle-class culture of Germany before the revolution of 1848 and of early Victorian England. It was later assailed by leftists for its "bourgeois complacency" and by the Wagnerians and Nazis for its composer's Jewish origin; scholars today, however, are better able to place his considerable musical achievements in their proper perspective.
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